Going into ’71, I had no idea what to expect. I had seen no footage or marketing material prior to my screening, so for better or for worse, I would at least be surprised. Thankfully this brooding thriller about a soldier’s survival in suburban Belfast turned out to be a pleasant one.
Jack O’Connell plays Gary Hook, a British solider newly enlisted into the army. Sent to Northern Ireland at the height of ‘The Troubles’, he’s separated and abandoned by his unit during a riot on the streets of Belfast. Disoriented and unsure of who to trust, he attempts to find his way safely back to the barracks.
With heart-pounding tension throughout, ’71 is one of the year’s best thrillers. Grounded firmly in reality, there’s an authenticity to the film, both in terms of style and tone. Whilst it looks like its been plucked from the time in which it’s set with its browny yellow colour scheme, the way in which violence is depicted feels very real too. The riot scenes have a distinct resemblance to what you would see reported on the news, while the bursts of brutality are unexpected and brief but all the more jaw dropping.
The film also addresses wider themes, with writer Gregory Burke and director Yann Demange seemingly interested in war and the effect it has on the young people within it. When we’re introduced to Hook and his fellow soldiers, there seems to be a naive sense of adventure and excitement about battle. This dissipates very quickly, and survival becomes the overruling instinct for our protagonist.
As the plot progresses, it becomes a story of a young man who discovers that he is no more than a pawn in a political chess game. It deals with this from both sides through a character called Sean, a young member of the IRA whose innocence hangs in the balance of a gunshot. By film’s end the message is clear; war leaves mental scars and it’s the soldiers who have to carry the burden.
Fresh from his star turn in prison drama Starred Up, O’Connell carries the weight of this story through his impressive performance. Very rarely are we separated from him, and despite his lack of dialogue, he still manages to speak through his reserved and nuanced performance.
It’s his brilliant effort as well as a visceral realism that makes ’71 such a stand out film. A thriller in the best sense of the word, it deals with universal themes that are relevant today, but still keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout. Make sure to catch it on the big-screen while you still can.
Image credit to boxofficeinternational.com